Campus News Faculty Spotlight

Associate professor teaches effective leadership

Laura Little, center, specializes in organizational behavior—why people react a certain way at work and how that behavior affects performance, motivation, communication and well-being. (Photo by Dorothy Kozlowski/UGA taken in January 2020)

(Originally published Jan, 23, 2020)

When Laura Little sits at her desk in Moore-Rooker Hall, she’s researching.

When she’s teaching a class on leadership and personal development, she’s researching.

She’s researching when she goes to lunch with colleagues, meets with students or simply walks through the halls of the Terry College Business Learning Community.

Because Little, an associate professor of management and Synovus Director of the Institute for Leadership Advancement, specializes in organizational behavior—why people react a certain way at work and how that affects performance, motivation, communication and well-being.

She does what she studies.

“The students, the environment here is where my research informs my life, and my life informs my research,” Little said. “It’s called ‘mesearch,’ trying to better understand the things I’m dealing with, and what the people around me are dealing with as well.”

A psychology undergrad at Vanderbilt, Little “loved trying to figure out why people do the things they do,” but felt the need to add a business focus to her skill set. She earned an MBA at the University of Texas at Austin, and the merging of psychology and business pointed her to Oklahoma State to pursue a Ph.D. in organizational behavior.

During her doctoral program, she hit upon a topic that would remain central to her research agenda—pregnancy in the workplace. She has written several papers, which have won awards and appeared in top management journals, about the difficulties women have while navigating pregnancy and employment.

“As soon as I told people I was pregnant, they thought I wasn’t serious and seemed less likely to want to work on research with me,” Little said. “When I told one of my professors that I was pregnant the second time, he said, ‘Well, you’ll never get tenure now.’ I think he meant it in a playful way, but I was taken aback. So I started looking at how pregnant women manage this idea that people don’t take them seriously at work.”

After Oklahoma State, she moved to UGA as an assistant professor.

Little continued publishing papers about emotional management, stressful demands in the workplace and work-family issues, all while teaching courses in organizational behavior, human resources and management performance. Along the way, she started teaching graduate-level classes on effective leadership. Her knowledge of leadership ­development opened a new door in 2014 when Dean Benjamin Ayers asked her to direct the Institute for Leadership Advancement. She welcomed the opportunity.

ILA is a university-wide program that develops values-based leaders to serve their organizations and communities. Students take courses that focus on gaining leadership skills beyond the classroom, and those who complete the curriculum earn a Certificate in Personal and Organizational Leadership. One of Little’s main jobs as director is to ensure the program’s longevity.

“ILA is privately funded, so there’s a focus on aligning our program’s strengths with the private support to endow and sustain them,” said Little, who has seen the program’s endowment quadruple in the last three years. “ILA faculty and staff have worked very hard and made great progress. Now, because of their dedication, we are looking at possible growth.”

Beyond her teaching and administrative duties, Little’s professional activities include being an editorial board member for Personnel Psychology and the Journal of Applied Psychology. She also presents and serves at meetings and consortiums around the country. Her involvement in so much only helps to bolster her research, which aims to understand the workplace problems people face every day.

“The other day, my students were talking about how women are penalized for being aggressive, and yet, they pointed out, you have to be aggressive to get anywhere,” Little said. “How do you handle that? How can I help them do this? The things they struggle with inform what I study. And I love what I do.”